The economy is not Trump's strong suit

The economy is not Trump's strong suit
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President Clinton strategist James Carville was fond of saying that when it came to what matters most in elections, “it’s the economy, stupid.” In his reelection bid, President Trump has to hope that Carville’s adage is not always true. Or at least he has to hope that on Election Day American voters will not ask themselves whether they were economically better off today than they were four years ago. Rather, he must hope that they will ask themselves whether they were better off today than they were six months ago at the pandemic’s economic nadir.

Trump never tires of spinning the narrative that until it was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy was stronger than ever thanks to his efforts at deregulation, his large tax cut and his “America First” trade policy.

Never mind that in his first three years in office, the economy grew at a rate not meaningfully faster than it did under President Obama. Never mind as well that, even before the pandemic, his protectionist trade policies cast a dark cloud over the global economy, while his large unfunded tax cut at a time of record-low unemployment seriously compromised the country’s public finances.

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It would be a gross understatement to say that Trump has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the country’s worst economic crisis in the past 90 years. He did so by ignoring his health experts’ warnings about the virus’s spread and by heeding instead his economic advisors’ siren call for a premature lifting of the lockdown to revitalize the economy. 

Still stuck in the first wave of the pandemic, the number of daily COVID-19 infections has increased from its earlier April peak of around 35,000 to its present level of around 60,000. As a result, with barely 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has managed to account for around 25 percent of the world’s total COVID-19 infections and fatalities.

The pandemic’s resurgence in the U.S., coupled with dire warnings from health experts about a likely second wave of the pandemic this fall, now seem to be halting the economy in its tracks from the very strong bounce it was having from its second quarter collapse. As Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recently noted, high frequency economic data on consumer demand as well as disappointing employment figures are suggesting that the economy might already be plateauing at an unacceptably high unemployment rate. 

It is not just that large Southern states now appear to be rolling back at least in part the earlier lifting of their lockdowns. Nor is it only that schools and colleges are increasingly pushing back their scheduled reopening dates, which could complicate Americans returning to the workplace. Rather, it is also that individuals are adjusting their behavior in a manner that is putting renewed pressure on those very sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit by the pandemic. With the pandemic raging, the American public once again appears to be increasingly reluctant to travel, frequent restaurants or engage in indoor shopping.

A stuttering economy now would heighten the prospect that the U.S. will soon face a massive wave of bankruptcies. It will do so as high unemployment puts unbearable strain on household finances and as additional stress is placed on those companies in the travel, restaurant, retail and entertainment space. It will also do so as the real commercial property sector is challenged by excess office space and by vacated shopping malls as people increasingly choose to work remotely and to shop online. That could very well keep unemployment in double digits on Election Day.  

All of this does not bode well for President Trump’s reelection prospects. Not only will he be going to the polls with a pandemic still out of control. He might also very well be going to the polls with very high unemployment and with the economy taking a second leg down. The only thing that might save Trump on the economic front would be if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Biden says Ginsburg successor should be picked by candidate who wins on Nov. 3 MORE embraced radical economic ideas from his party’s leftwing.

Desmond Lachman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly a deputy director in the International Monetary Fund's Policy Development and Review Department and the chief emerging market economic strategist at Salomon Smith Barney.